Today I'm sharing a short fiction suite I wrote 20 years ago for a publication I put out sporadically for a handful of years. SLANK featured short stories, essays, editorials, cartoons, poetry and other art by yours truly as well as friends and family. It was the successor to another 'zine I'd done called frog spit, and a precursor, I suppose, to this blog and my other one, The Backside of America.
So, without further ado, I give you....
1) Let Me Leave
I slept outside last night. I fluffed up the dirt, pulled back the blanket of crispy, crackly leaves and wandered off to sleep, dreaming of supernovas, rocks from Mars and creatures from "The X-Files." During the night, smoke from my neighbor's wood stove curled across my yard, into my nostrils, filled my head with warmth and sanity. A dog sniffed his way across the tree line before venturing over to pee at the foot of my resting place. I thanked him.
Bugs wound their way around the stems, up the veins and chewed their way across my leafy blanket. I did not move but to bat an eyelash at them. They didn't care; I was one of them, part of them. I welcomed them.
Around 2 a.m., I woke to a tickling on my chin. Perhaps, I thought, my whiskers are growing more quickly in the fresh, autumn air. But no, it was an inchworm, late for work and hoping to gather some speed by tumbling down my cheek. I laughed at him.
Precisely at 4 a.m., as I'd suspected, the awe-wielding maniac skulked across the yard, scaring the squirrels and crickets into silence. He was surprised to see a pair of beady eyes checking him out from inside this cozy outdoor bunk. He attempted to menace me from twenty paces, but I simply told him to bug off. I waved at him.
At 6, the cock crowed, and this scared the hell out of me, for I have no rooster. I sat upright, and what did I see, but a bright red rooster with a yellow comb on top of his clucky head. He winked at me.
Rising slowly, I took the time to see what the place looked like in the daylight, as I hadn't really done so in a long, long time. I'd forgotten where I lived, you see, what wonders existed in my own backyard, what creatures lived outside my imagination. Things were not so pretty in the daylight as they were under the stars.
There was Johnson's tree house, falling apart and pretending to be the Honeycomb Hideout; Washington's swimming pool, glowing aqua and shimmering with steam; Bailey's broken-down jalopy with windows for doors; Sing's crumbling woodshed mocking Mother Nature; and my own foolish lawnmower, strong enough to propel itself into the next county, if only it were smart enough.
Why did reality have to rise with the sun? Why did man have to create so much junk? Why did the axe-wielding maniac leave a trail of blood across my limestone patio?
I fear the Great Pumpkin, for he is a mammoth, orange Disciple of Gaia. Born in the musty soil of Concord, hard by Route 2; raised on the vine -- the twisting, gnarly umbilical cord through which Mother Nature's nutrients flow; now, fat with maturity, rolled with great effort and farmer's sweat into the market, to be sold to an unsuspecting victim.
"Three-hundred-seventy-one pounds of pure evil is sitting over there," I tell this kid. "Almost four hundred pounds of grotesquely round menace, colored by the Flames of Hell," I say to him. He runs, screaming his fool head off, back to his mommy and the promise of a caramel apple. I say a quiet prayer for him.
Surrounded by hundreds of squashes of all sizes, shapes, colors, smells and temperaments, only I know where the truly diabolical one sits. Sure, here and there I spy a Hubbard squash or bottle gourd that may send a chill up my spine. But I am not really worried by this. They are merely supporting characters in the Game of Evil being played by the G.P., who sits over there, like Jabba the Hut, next to the rusty tractor, waiting to be thumped just the wrong way, so he can wreak havoc on the world.
My sworn duty -- my reason for being placed ever-so-softly on this Earth -- is to save mankind from the G.P.
Boldly I stride across the open field of the market, brushing aside women and children, making a plumb line for the tractor.
"How much?" I ask the crusty salesman in his John Deere hat.
"Ain't for sale," he tells me in his bad, nasally grammar. "Just for show," he adds, wiping caramel from his hands onto his Big Smiths.
This is not acceptable," I say to him.
"Ain't for sale," he repeats, drone-like.
"Fair enough," I say, smiling.
I stroll nice and easy to my truck. The door creaks as I open it; I slide behind the wheel, thinking about oiling that door, but putting it second on my list, just behind "rescuing mankind." I cruise slowly, past the yuppie parents and their Radio Flyer children with rosy cheeks and tainted minds, to the end of the dirt lot closest to the tractor. Jamming the shifter into "P," I leave the motor running and hustle over behind the tractor. Then I dash for the G.P., using the Lord's adrenaline to help me lift it onto my back and rush over to the truck, where I carefully roll it into the bed, and throw up the gate. As I pull out, I look upon a sea of astonished faces. No one can believe what they've seen. They do not know they've been saved.
AS I haul out of the parking lot, an unwitting Tool of Satan veers her stupid Geo in front of me. I swerve to miss her (only out of instinct, not compassion) and the damn G.P. goes flying over the tailgate, bounces off the stupid little car's roof and smashes into pieces on the asphalt.
My foe has multiplied. I cannot hope to thwart him now. Each splinter of pulpy fruit is a harbinger of evil to come. I drive on into the uncertain gloom of the Harvest Moon.
3) Family Portrait
I can smell their shoes.
Walking overhead, their floor = my ceiling. Old boards creek like arthritic joints -- the same ones again and again. It's a shame no one has fallen through. Lately.
Each time they drive away, I scurry up to see what they've left behind. A half-empty Snapple bottle (mmmm....Kiwi-Strawberry) once; a pamphlet about the Worcester Outlets another time; a small footprint preserved in horse manure; the scent of Grey Flannel.
Every year they come when the shadows lengthen, the temperature drops and the trees shed. They stay for an hour or so, until Mr. has made plans to change his life, simplify his goals and move out to the country. I have followed the growth of their children, the rift in the marriage, the patterns of life.
When Boy was a young crawler, he almost fell through a weak board and into my waiting grasp. His little Weebok foot (smelling of new Lexus leather seats) dangled there for a few precious seconds before Mrs. scooped him back to safety. Tantalizing.
Girl = getting to the difficult age, probably 12 or 13 now. She doesn't like to listen to her parents, only to the headphones clamped permanently to her ears. She scuffs her Penny Loafers up (to cover the smell of freshly mown grass) and wears ripped jeans and tight t-shirts. Rebellious, despite the shoes.
I remember Mr. when he was a little older than Boy = now, would come here with Old Mr. -- just the two of them -- and throw rocks into my river and drop pipe tobacco onto their floor = my ceiling.
And I remember when Mr. first brought Mrs. here. She didn't feel right about it, she said. Something eerie about the place. She had ESP, or something, she said. She is still the last to arrive, and always the first to leave. She sniffs the air, looks through the cracks in their floor = my ceiling.
She has never caught on to me. She never will. If Mrs. fell through a weak board, I would throw her in the river. But I would keep her Espadrilles, because they smell of salt water and beachfront property.
This time she seems more guarded than usual, keeping her distance from the family. Girl doesn't notice, nor does Mr., but Boy keeps asking her to hurry along and see the fishes swimming in the river, the bright orange leaves floating along the top. But she is preoccupied.
Finally they all leave, with Mrs. stepping off the bridge last -- something that's never happened. After they drive off, I scramble up top to see what they've left. At first I don't see anything. There are no candy wrappers, baseball cards or cigar butts. Nothing. That's not right.
As I shuffle along close to the wall, I come across a scrap of paper stuck in a crack. It simply says, "OPEN." So I do.
"Dear Troll:" it begins.
"Thank you for keeping watch over my family when we come to visit. I've always known you were there, and have always felt safe, if a little weird. After all these years, I think you should know that I am leaving my husband. I hope to bring the children with me to Florida, so we shall never be here again. My husband will no doubt wish to forget this place after we leave him, so I doubt he will return. Goodbye."
On the back of the paper she had drawn a crude map, which included the bridge, the nearby grove of maple trees and a cluster of large stones that used to be part of a gate leading into an old farm. With an arrow she indicated that under this pile of stones I would find a pleasant surprise.
After nightfall I limped out of my quarters and made my way over to the old wall. Making sure no one had seen me, I lit my kerosene lantern and unstacked the stones.
At the bottom, nestled in the cool, moist dirt was a Saks Fifth Avenue bag. Nervous with anticipation, I opened the bag, ran my hand along the heavy cardboard box inside and closed my eyes, ecstatic. Inside, hidden beneath fragrant tissue paper, was a pair of my very own leather boots, "for the coming winter," her note said.
I always liked her.